The Cinematographer, The Philosopher and the Ancient Art of Brain Games

Pay attention! We’re about to deceive you. We’re going to play a game that only videographers may understand. We’re going to ask you to put on your director’s cap and then we’ll see who is up to the challenge. Ready? Here’s the scene that you as a cinematographer will have to stage: A woman in a summer dress and dark sunglasses is going to go to the casino, so when she starts to march down the hallway in her high heels, she gathered her pocketbook full of cash, remembered to grab her keys off the table, gets into her car and like the assassin that she is, will proceed to aggressively drive her cherry red high-performance convertible past the camera from left to right, speeding off into the distance of the estate.

Okay, let’s review. How many of you noticed the problem with this scene on your first read? No, it’s not that an assassin would only wear flat shoes, it’s that we’ve changed tense in that one sentence no less than three times. Did you get that? If so, congratulations. We need more people like you in the continuity department. On the other hand, if you missed it you were probably focusing on the visual task at hand, and not simple grammar, so good for you, too.

All of these elements and more are implemented in the creation of what will hopefully be received as a work of art.

Scenarios like this are often played out during “Brain Games”, The National Geographic Channel’s Emmy-nominated hit television show currently in its fifth season. Jason Silva hosts this fascinating look into not only how things work, but how the truth sometimes differs from our perception. “We explore perception and misperception, and all the ways in which our past experiences inform our day to day reality.”

It was while watching the show with my family one night that it occurred to me; much of what we do in editing, and indeed what we all do in film and television hinges on the concepts they convey in the show. Sure there’s an art to our profession. On the surface, we take a story, plan shots, choose angles, edit things out; all of these elements and more are implemented in the creation of what will hopefully be received as a work of art. But there’s a science behind our art that I wanted to know more about. This took me down the rabbit hole of human nature, philosophy and wonder. As I would come to find out, Silva was the perfect guide for this journey.

Not “How?”, but “Why?”

As cinematic creators, we know rhetoric posted in books, trade magazines and film schools: Cutting on motion, cutting on dialog, cutting for continuity, color matching, offsetting the audio from the video, dissolves softening a cut. Good creators know how to use these concepts in order to create a new reality into which our story is placed. But “how” we implement these concepts isn’t always enough. Sometimes some or all of these don’t work, sometimes they’re actually inappropriate or just don’t apply. Why is that?

If we can get a little Yoda here for a minute, there is a long held belief among philosophers, scientists and mechanics alike (a strange combination I know), that in order to truly perfect a skill it’s not enough to simply know how things work. True masters, it is believed, must also possess the knowledge of why things work. Surely if we understood why they work, then we would have a greater understanding of when to use them and when not to. What is it about perception, light, motion emotion, human nature that makes these edits work or not work? Wouldn’t this deeper understanding make you a better videographer? That’s what we’re going to focus on today.

Let’s go back to our game at the beginning. Why do you think that game worked? In this case, it’s a little about sleight of hand, a bit of distraction and a little about understanding our profession. We’ve structured the paragraph to get you concentrating on the directorial aspects of the content, not proper paragraph structure. Think of it like that old riddle where they give you a long list of people who got on and off the bus and then instead of a math question they ask you who the bus driver is. Finally, we’re playing up on your experiences. If you’ve been on a production like this, it’s not uncommon to describe action in a sort of shorthand, ignoring etiquette formalities such as time and grammar.

Silva holds a degree in philosophy, and is a public keynote speaker and filmmaker in his own right. In his words, “Reality is coupled to perception and perception can be “mediated” by culture, language, electronics, music, etc. In the end, our subjectivity is “collaborative,” a collaboration between subject and object.”

Okay, many of you are probably lost. None of this pertains to the art of cinematography, right? And yet it does. “Science and art are two sides of the same coin…” Silva advises, “…[they are] two “languages” for helping us understand reality. Both are equally important.” With that in mind, let’s take a more down to earth and focused approach to the science behind our art.

We all understand that there are these pictures that show up on a screen that people (and sometimes my cat) watch and are entertained by. We all know that you can take the irrelevant chunks out of camera footage and shorten it into a condensed story. Many of us have taken this one step further and come to understand that one can tweak those edits and shots so that they come together seamlessly into a new work that can not only entertain, but indeed influence emotion, opinion and even behavior. Different styles of shooting and editing can be used to achieve just this purpose.

Let’s concentrate for a bit on an edit. Sometimes they work, and we are further pulled along in the scene. Sometimes they fail and remove us from the content. Edward Dmytryk argued in his book “On Film Editing” that, every cut should be made at a precise and perfect point. This is not to say that your content will immediately provide you with the perfect edit point, only that for content, continuity and emotion there is always one ideal edit point where all three considerations are perfectly balanced in order to move the story and audience as we wish.

Understanding Time and Pace

As viewers, there is an essential understanding when we watch a film or video. Consider it the most fundamental function of “suspension of disbelief.” Every viewer grants and indeed expects time will be condensed and that the daily tedium that leads us from one plot point to the next will [hopefully] be removed. We’re watching a story, not a person’s entire life as it happens. This is the “get in late, get out early” notion of scene design taken to the extreme. The audience doesn’t want to see the mundane, or the irrelevant, so we remove it for them, leaving only the story we’re concerned with.  A common method of effective editing is to cut on action. This means that you change your current shot while there is motion, and match it to the motion of the incoming shot, in essence continuing the action. This is basic editing, but it can be much more nuanced than that.

“Certainly there are insights into how we perceive the world that could be useful when editing,” says Silva. “‘Brain Games’ is all about the editing. The games either work or they don’t, and we work with brain experts, television writers and excellent editors to make sure the whole thing comes together.”

Here’s an example. A person starts a car and pulls away from the curb. You then cut to a similar shot of that person walking up a path and into a building. As the viewer, we recognize instantly that the person needed to be somewhere, that they needed a car, and that they have now only just arrived at their destination. Yet what is it that led us to that conclusion? At the heart of the matter is our brain’s need to make sense of what we see in the world around us. We need the world to make some kind of logical sense, and a progression of motion is vital in our quest to understand our place in the universe. Thus our brain fills in the blanks. Take first the idea that the car is moving in the same direction as they are walking. Your eye will follow the car and perceive that the transition is smooth and the motion is uninterrupted. Our brain can then make the connection that the trip was a direct one, that we are indeed continuing the same travel, or through line. One thing leads to the next.

The audience doesn’t want to see the mundane, or the irrelevant, so we remove it for them, leaving only the story we’re concerned with.

What would happen then if we instead have the car moving off from left to right, and cut to the person walking from right to left? In this instance the brain would perceive a discontinuity. It knows that you can’t arrive to the right by travelling left, so what could be termed an “error” message is sent out. Something is wrong, and it reverts back to what we know about our world instinctually. The the brain tells us we’ve missed something. At some point that we didn’t see, the traveler changed direction. Our comprehension fills in the gaps, perceiving that the only way this could have happened is if more time has passed while we were “blinking” than we thought. We’ve now used the notion of cutting on motion to convey a longer passage of time. Perhaps the person even stopped off somewhere on the way to their destination.

What other things can we convey besides time? What would happen if instead of changing direction, we altered the speed of one or both actions? The human ability to read body language comes into play here. If the car pulls away hastily, the audience would conclude that the subject is in a hurry, anxious or angry. They are rushing to get somewhere, or get away from somewhere. A person in a rush is not going to go slow if their adrenaline is high. Likewise if we counter this fast car movement with a slow walk up to the building, we portray that the person has had time to calm down, that they are no longer angry, anxious or tense. They are in control again. A longer amount of time has passed wherein they have changed their mood.

Is it possible that we could take this further, and convey an even shorter or longer period of time? Let’s now change the location of the edit between the two shots. This time the car starts pulling away, but we hold on it longer, watching it go into the distance. At this point we might be convinced they are leaving a situation rather than simply moving from one location to the next. If we were chasing this person and they got in a car and drove off, we would indeed be watching them go, like prey that got away. The predator would be simultaneously contemplating whether it would be worth continuing to pursue, calculating where their target could be going next and wishing their subject had not gotten away. There’s a moment of contemplation there. It is this moment that we give the audience when we extend the outgoing imagery. That long contemplation will also convey an even longer passage of time between it and the next scene. As our subject moves into the distance, they slow relative to our position and perspective, thus might time as well.

Likewise, a longer walk up on the incoming shot would give the audience more pause to think about what’s going to happen next. Our subject is thinking about what has happened in the car and what is going to happen as they enter the building as they approach. Might there be feelings of longer lasting consequences or a deeper sense of planning? Consider what you might think if you shortened the drive off, but had a long walk up? A deeper sense of resolve perhaps? What about a long car ride-off, but a slow and short walk? It is perception and empathy that we can thank for creating such a complex situation around a single point in time.

Personal Discontinuity

We’ve talked a lot about what we can make the viewer think and see, but what about making them miss things? Often this is just as, if not more important than what they do see. It’s important to remember that in 99 percent of all editing situations, content is more important than continuity. If you have to choose between detracting from content and having a car in the background of your shot change color, content should win every time. If your material is engaging enough, viewers shouldn’t be looking at the background to begin with. There should never be a case, however, when the change is so abrupt that it overpowers the content. This is where our psychological manipulation comes into play again.

As a staple of bringing home the bacon, the medical information world is where I’ve been spending the majority of my time editing over much of the past decade. This field is a perfect example of where content must take precedence over continuity. We record live discussions between experts. The scientific information must be clear and concise. Often a stutter or mistaken statement must be cut even if it means someone’s arm jumps location from one shot to the next, yet you’d be surprised how rare it is that someone who is not an editor even notices. The reason for this is that we’ve become quite capable of covering up these types of edits. Again however, I want to talk about why this works.

If the viewer is focused on one aspect of the program, other aspects will probably slip by them.

We’re going to go back to the concept of distraction again. First and foremost the viewers have a vested interest in paying close attention to the content. If they’re listening intently and thinking about what is said, they’re less likely to be paying excessive attention to the visuals. Contrary to what many people believe, humans are not true multitaskers. This concept is an example of the types of topics explored on “Brain Games” (season one, episode two). Some people are good at switching back and forth between tasks rather quickly, but that’s not the same as how your modern computer can run two or more programs in parallel. What this means is that if the viewer is focused on one aspect of the program, other aspects will probably slip by them.

The trick then is to get viewers to focus on the right aspect at the right time. But what can we do if our subject is not so important that the dialog requires the full intention of the viewer? We can use other distractions. Pools of light and darkness work great, as our eye is always drawn to the light. Flashes or specular highlights can be used to draw the eye to one particular spot on the screen. Bright colors like red or orange can draw the eye just the same and make sections pop out from the rest — a common method used in paintings. This can be seen often in scenes of parties or weddings, where the main character is in a red dress and everyone else is in blue, green, gray and black. This simple trick is responsible for why we as an audience never notice the discontinuity in the background of any party scene, and I would challenge you to find any large party scene where there aren’t continuity issues. The brain is trading accuracy for speed (“Brain Games,” season three, episode six), taking in as much information as possible but only processing what is important. Of course, we can point back once again to motion and use that to get them to focus where we want.

Filmmaking is a three-edged sword.

Indeed, it becomes clear that all these methods we employ during production and post-production to influence our viewers have a grounding in human nature and an explanation in science, but it takes the artistic side to implement these methods effectively. Silva, who is passionate about telling stories and creating moments of awe in our viewers, agrees that the artistic cannot be overlooked or even overshadowed. “There are certainly brilliant techniques for editing, but in the end there is a rhythm, a gift, that can’t be learned — its that flow that you tap into.” He points to Leonardo Dalessandri, filmmaker behind “Watchtower of Turkey” for influence in this field, and considers him the “Mozart of editing.” In the end art, science and nature are all sides of the same coin. Our work represents that: Your vision, their perception, and the truth of the screen.

At this point in my journey of understanding, I’m faced with a conundrum, somewhat tangential, yet relevant to the exploration of why cinematography techniques work. If within our works we can shape reality, and reality is subjective, what then becomes of the shared experience? Certainly this is one of the primary goals we strive for when reaching out to the audience at large with our cinematic constructions. Is reality different then for each viewer? Certainly this could explain why you could have a hundred people walk out of a movie theater and many will tell you details and plot points that are less than identical to the others. Once again Silva has some wonderful insight. “As David Lenson has written, we find that reality is a garden of forking paths of possible experiences: person, multiplied by place, multiplied by time. There is no “one” reality. Joseph Campbell even told us that you can’t use the word “reality” without quotation marks around it.” As a filmmaker, it’s reassuring in a way that we can connect with many, but on something of a personal level to each individual. In many ways, it’s what we as artists ultimately hope to achieve, a work that speaks to all, but means something slightly different to everyone.

We find that reality is a garden of forking paths of possible experiences: person, multiplied by place, multiplied by time. There is no “one” reality.

At the end of the day we will all go back to our scripts, cameras and edit timelines and continue our work as we usually do, instinctually, as we have been taught, as we have learned. I doubt that I’ll ever — in fact hope I don’t — look at a cut and say, “I should edit this way because science tells me to.” Yet I, for one, have found I have gained a new insight into my work that perhaps I didn’t have before. Through the exploration of science, I’ve found a new understanding not only in the mechanics and physics of our work, but in the art of our work. Understanding the science behind our methods is not going to make us brilliant where we weren’t before, it’s not going to make things suddenly “click,” but it may make us find the right shot faster or the perfect edit point sooner. Perhaps, it will make our stories more involving, our messages more meaningful and help us better connect with our audience.

“Brain Games” season five premieres Sunday Feb. 14 at 9pm Eastern time, and replays at various times throughout the week.

Sidebar: More from Jason Silva

Silva says that National Geographic brought him onboard after seeing his viral video series “Shots of Awe”, which can be found on “‘Shots of Awe’ is a passion project — a series of micro documentaries meant to alter the viewer’s consciousness and help them see the world in a new way. We explore technology and innovation and creativity.” The videos collectively have been viewed more than 20 million times. Silva tells us such influencers as Ron Howard and Richard Branson have shared the series with others. “I’m passionate about the subject of “awe” — how does cinema, how does media catalyze AWE: how can we tell stories, edit stories, to be cathartic experiences for viewers? “Shots of Awe” is all about this. Check it out at

Peter Zunitch is an award-winning editor in New York

Susan Schmierer
Susan Schmierer
Susan is the Art Director at Videomaker and Creator Handbook Magazines.

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